Doíre Press 2015, Trade paperback 79 pages, €12 cover price
Something that massively annoyed me during my undergraduate years was when our Professor of Romantic Literature informed the class in clear words neither inviting nor tolerating any objection that only a poem could describe a moment. No novel, no essay could capture the simultaneous nature of observation, judgement, reaction and emotion. In truth, those four probably aren’t simultaneous nor could they be, yet given the speed of thought, well I suppose we can call that one as close enough.
Still, the verdict was annoying because I just have a reflexive antagonism towards any absolute such as only or all. Regarding the latter, I dug in my cuban heeled boots against Northrop Frye’s assertion that all main characters in a novel must change somehow by the end of the book. Having since read some pretty lousy fiction over the years I can tell Frye when we meet in the hereafter that not all characters change or develop; only the ones in good books do.
However as to that first matter, that of only poems being able to describe moments I must concede the debate. Because the very form of a well-written poem links first word to last, and through rhythm and/or rhyme binds the lines into something much like a musical chord, the time spent reading that poem loses its linear form and becomes circular, whole. The end is the beginning and the beginning is the end.
I dredged up all those memories – and I do apologize if they were on the dull side – while reading the Irish poet Elaine Gaston’s collection The Lie of The Land. These fifty-one poems are each moments which taken as a whole, read in consecutive order, in turn form a rather intriguing poetic novel or biography of a character who does indeed develop over the course of the verses. That’s my first word of approval for this book. Too often poetry collections seem rather randomly ordered, to the point that you could take out all the pages, shuffle and deal, without making any difference to the appreciation of the work. Not so, not here, so may I offer my thanks to both the editor and publisher.
This ordering structure is foreshadowed in the opening poem, Early Map. The first of its four stanzas is as squarely written as anything Longfellow ever drafted:
I know my way by the mousy stone,
the boggy field, the fairy thorn,
the house with the old milk churn stand,
the house which hides the bogeyman,
Clearly we are in the world of a child here, with an implied response to a worried Mammy cautioning, ‘Now don’t you go wandering off!’ The child knows better; why she knows everything there is to know about her environment, her world. That world keeps expanding though, and so the closing lines are these:
shining basalt in my mind,
falling water through my hands,
ripe blackberries on my tongue:
Drumtullagh, Dunservick, Lisnagunogue.
That steady drumbeat rhythm of the first stanza is gone and if you, the non-Irish reader, find those last three place names unpronounceable except by a guesswork that truly ends the music, well that’s exactly the point. There are studies to be entered upon, language to be learned, yet nature shall still provide for our core with water, food, sustenance. We’re off and running.
The world and the narrator’s encounters with it keeps expanding. Gaston’s poem Portballintrae echoes Early Map. The structure does not shift in this poem, yet it too begins with a simple statement, ‘It’s a faded Polaroid photo in my mind’ and ending with three exotic names, ‘Port na Spania, Girona, Armada.’
Elaine Gaston ends most of her poems in similar, abrupt fashion. She does not summarize her message like a lunchtime speaker at the local Rotary Club. It feels as though there should be one more stanza, a continuation that forms a finish. Yet that is a wise choice, for in the braided gold chain of a life formed of all the little moments we live in, there are no neat ‘finishes.’ We plug along to the next and the next and the next.
Of course all this poetic biography isn’t worth much if the language itself is not compelling. I’d suggest that the worth of a poet is directly related to their love of words themselves. Gaston clearly adores the arrangements of letters and sounds. As an example, there is the poem What Would Jesus Say? A group of schoolchildren find an old and faded sign that notes ‘Jesus is Coming.’ So what do they do? Well they do as children do and add a funny codicil:
One afternoon when we were getting off
as Jesus is Coming came up at a lick,
we saw fresh paint and added underneath:
if he remembers to change at Dervock [sic].
Just in case you don’t know, sic is pronounced as ‘seek’. Now there’s a delicious little piece of wordplay for you.
The journey through life continues until we arrive at the last poem, Walking to Marconi’s. Now I don’t know if Marconi’s is a friend’s house, a pub or a grocery, yet it is surely by design that Gaston chooses the name of the man who invented radio transmission. (All right, he didn’t really, but conventional wisdom is still a sort of wisdom.) There is one of those lashing Atlantic storms that those of us who live on our moody island know so well. Remember those blackberries from the first poem? Well, as the narrator steps out of her car into the storm, she writes:
blackberries almost over,
first hazels in the scrub above
where we used to go for the scrog.
The water that used to run through a child’s fingers now drenches and obscures both land and ocean in mist and cloud. Indeed the meaning of that water is in the last lines of the last poem in this remarkable collection:
and reach the car
just as the island disappears
and the heavens open.
And so it is not ashes to ashes that is the metaphor for our lives, it is water that endlessly circulates in its forms from rain to ocean to vapour to rain again. It so forms a sort of circle, defying lines of time and forming a whole. My old professor was right. In the hands of an excellent writer such as Elaine Gaston, only a poem can define a moment – including the moment we are in this Earth.
Be seeing you.